NORTHBROOK – Northbrook hosted its first Plein-Air Painting Festival on October 6-8, inviting 26 Midwest artists to set up their easels around the village, paint the great outdoors, and compete for prize money.
Sponsored by the Northbrook Arts Commission, the inaugural three-day festival kicked off on October 6 when the two-dozen registered artists fanned out across the town, painting for two days in both rain and shine while capturing the village’s streetscapes, parks and suburban vistas. Most found beauty in unexpected places.
Plein-air , or “open air” artists have been outdoors painting directly from nature since the mid-19th century, when the introduction of ready-made paint in tubes allowed artists – previously relegated to making their own paints by grinding and mixing ingredients – the freedom to work outside their studios. Around the same time, the small French box easel was invented, featuring telescopic legs and a built-in paint box, enabling painters to hike with their materials into fields and forests.
According to Bruce Bondy, Northbrook’s Arts Commissioner, plein-air painting has become increasingly popular over the past decade, with as many as 200 plein-air festivals held across the United States each year in picturesque locations such as Door County, Wisconsin and Sonoma, California.
Bondy, an architectural illustrator who lives and works in Northbrook, joined the arts commission last year and began looking for new ideas and events.
“This competitive plein-air event is one of the first of its kind in Chicago,” confirmed Bondy. “With our generous prize money, we’ve been able to attract some of the top artists in the region.”
By Saturday evening, per the rules of the festival, artists had submitted three oil, acrylic, watercolor or pastel paintings for judging, exhibition and sale to the public on Sunday afternoon, October 8. Top prizewinner Christina Body of Wilmette received $1,000 for her colorful painting of three pink Affordable Roofing trucks parked outside the company’s headquarters on Techny Road.
“I’ve lived here for 20 years, but these artists have found things that were under my nose that I never noticed,” said Bondy. “It’s nice to see the community reflected back through the prism of an artistic lens.”
Christina Body was one of several painters also participating in the festival’s Quick Paint Competition on Sunday morning on the Village Green, where artists were required to work in a concentrated geographic area and allotted just 2.5 hours to begin, finish and frame a single painting.
Body, a plein-air painter who also works in her home studio during the winter months, chose to set her easel alongside the railroad tracks on Shermer Road and paint Northbrook’s newest landmark: the large chicken statue outside Drumstix Market.
“I’ll sometimes walk around for a long time looking for something that really inspires me,” said Body. “I’m drawn to dramatic light and contrasting shadows. Today, I decided to paint something fun.”
Although the sun shone brightly for Sunday’s Quick Paint Competition, wet conditions prevailed on Friday and Saturday. Commissioner Bondy said rain does not deter most plein-air painters; natural elements are considered an essential part of the plein-air process.
“These artists are very resilient,” said Bondy. “Sometimes they’ll erect a tarp around their easel, but they’re used to working in all weather conditions.”
Bondy described the experiences of artist Lee Radtke, who entered the competition on Friday evening. After Radtke’s canvas was time stamped – a feature used in plein-air competitions to verify the authenticity of painting – he chose to set up his easel outside The Landmark Inn on Church Street, where a full house was gathered “in various stages of sobriety” to watch the Blackhawks game.
“Slowly, over the course of the evening, a crowd of spectators began forming around him as he worked,” said Bondy. “The consensus was ‘we’d rather watch you than the Blackhawks.’”
By Sunday afternoon, a gallery filled with nearly 100 paintings ranging in price from $200 to $1,200 was on display inside the Village Green Center, ready for judging at 1 p.m. by acclaimed plein-air painter and Northbrook resident Brian Sindler. Images of Northbrook’s Techny Towers proved a popular subject for artists, as was the town’s water tower, famously emblazoned with the words “Save Ferris” in the John Hughes film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Members of the community were invited to browse and purchase the pieces while enjoying performances by local musical artists, as well as a live outdoor painting demonstration by festival participant Steve Puttrich, an award-winning plein-air artist and teacher. A portion of sale proceeds was donated back to the Northbrook Arts Commission.